The Spectator

Covid-19 update: Sweden tames its ‘R number’ without lockdown

Covid-19 update: Sweden tames its ‘R number’ without lockdown
A tattoo of Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, on the arm of Gustav Lloyd Agerblad, 32. Picture: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images.
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News and analysis 

  • Face scans are being considered by ministers to create ‘immunity passports’, where those proven to have acquired Covid-19 can be released from lockdown. Kate Andrews argues against the idea onCoffee House.
  • The Chinese government destroyed evidence that coronavirus escaped a lab in Wuhan, according to a leaked dossier by the Western intelligence-sharing group Five Eyes.
  • The NHS will trial a tracing app on the Isle of Wight this week. Freddy Gray wishes them luck, given the quality of the island’s internet coverage.
  • A quarter of A-level students have not been given any schoolwork by their teachers. Meanwhile primary schools may begin to open from 1 June.
  • Reduced hot-desking and protective screens are among the plans being considered for workplaces after lockdown.
  • The government has unveiled the list of experts who have attended Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings. Government officials have not been named, nor have two attendees who have not given permission to be listed.
  • A former chief scientific adviser has launched an ‘independent’ alternative to the government’s Sage.
  • Boris Johnson is to tell an international health conference today that a vaccine is the only way to end the coronavirus crisis.
  • An Edinburgh-based healthcare firm says it has developed an antibody test that is 99.8% accurate and can be completed in 35 minutes. A Roche antibody test claiming 100% accuracy was given FDA approval over the weekend.

Sweden tames its ‘R number’ without lockdown

by Fraser Nelson

Sweden has been the world’s Covid-19 outlier, pursuing social distancing but rejecting mandatory lockdown. Schools, bars and restaurants are open – albeit with strong voluntary social distancing compliance and streets that often look almost as empty as Britain’s. Has this been enough? Sweden’s public health agency has now published a study of its R number, a metric which the UK is using to judge the success of lockdown. The objective is to push R below one, which means the number of new cases is slowing. Last week, the UK’s R number was estimated at 0.8 (± 0.2 points), a figure described as an achievement of lockdown. But Sweden’s reading is 0.85, with a smaller error margin of ±0.02 points.

This raises an interesting question: might voluntary lockdowns work just as well? And might they keep the virus at a manageable level with lower social and economic costs?

The UK government has used modelling from Imperial College London, which makes some firm assumptions about lockdown. Its graph shows self-isolation, voluntary social distancing and even school closures making very little difference to the R number. Lockdown, by contrast, is shown to be a gamechanger with the R sinking immediately.

The UK has not been tracking ‘the R’ on a daily basis so we cannot test Imperial’s model. But we can for Sweden. Imperial used the same assumptions to publish a forecast saying Sweden’s rejection of lockdown was likely to leave the virus growing at an R rate between 3 and 4. Imperial’s assumptions envisaged Swedes having 40,000 Covid-19 deaths by 1 May and almost 100,000 by June. Even a mandatory lockdown was expected to have only limited Sweden’s Covid-19 death toll to 20,000.

The latest figure for Sweden is 2,680 deaths, with daily deaths peaking a fortnight ago. Imperial College’s modelling, the same modelling used to inform the UK response, was out by an order of magnitude. Sweden has now published its own graph, saying its R was never near the 4 that Imperial assumed and has in fact been below the safe level of 1 for the past few weeks.

As Johan Norberg has written, Imperial’s model ‘could only handle two scenarios: an enforced national lockdown or zero change in behaviour. It had no way of computing Swedes who decided to socially distance voluntarily. But we did.’ Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has seen his trust ratings soar: some Swedes are even having his face tattooed on their arm (picture below).

At present, Britain is considering the South Korean model: tech, surveillance, track and trace. But given that Sweden achieved what Imperial College had thought was undoable without the surveillance or the tech, its lessons are also worthy of consideration. Swedes have been asked to use what their PM calls ‘Folkvett’ – people’s wit, or common sense. As Boris Johnson considers his options, he should also ask whether a folkvett option – described in a recentSpectator leading article as a ‘trust the public’ approach – might work for Britain.

In pictures
A tattoo of Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, on the arm of Gustav Lloyd Agerblad, 32. Picture: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images.

Have we all been fighting the same disease?

by Ross Clark

One of the great mysteries of coronavirus is how the epidemic was easier to contain in the Far East than Europe and North America. Was it track-and-trace – or something else? A paper from a team at the University of Sheffield and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has been looking at mutations of Sars-CoV-2. They found 14 with one in particular causing them concern. Early in the outbreak – and this was true in Europe as well as in the Far East – samples of the virus contained a version of the protein known as D614. But a different version, G614, began to emerge in samples from both Europe and China. In Italy and Switzerland, from early on, it was found to be the dominant version.

The good news is that the G614 version of the virus does not seem to result in a greater risk of hospitalisation – indicating that it doesn’t cause a more serious form of the disease. However, that does leave open the possibility that the G614 version is much more easily transmissible. This might help explain why this disease has proved so much harder to contain in some places than others.

Read Ross’s full blog here.

In words

It’s not just in Game of Thrones that winter is coming.

Chris Whitty during a Gresham College lecture last week.

The idea is to go very gradually so that people who are less at risk can develop antibodies to be able to become immune.

– Quebec Premier François Legault on collective immunity.

It will be our task to be vigilant and to dampen the enthusiasm for reopening society too quickly.

Erika Vlieghe, the chair of Belgium’s Panel of Experts in charge of de-confinement.

The lockdown had a massive effect on him. Ben had not spoken to anyone about how he was feeling. He found it all too overwhelming.’

– The mother of Ben Brown, a Loughborough University student who took his own life during lockdown.

If people are allowed to meet up with a circle of up to ten people, we shouldn’t be asked to police that. How ridiculous is that? It would be impossible to police.

– An anonymous police chief constable speaking to the Times.

Every day I get intelligence bulletins from our agencies and around the world, I don’t comment on individual bulletins – what I have and haven’t seen – that would be wrong. Most intelligence is gathered at risk to somebody but I see lots of intelligence and I’m afraid I’m not going to comment on a specific piece of intelligence.

– Defence Secretary Ben Wallacespeaking [8:26] to the Today programme about reports of a leaked Five Eyes dossier suggesting coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Global news

  • Le Patient Zero: a French case of Covid-19 occurred as early as 27 December according to Professor Yves Cohen, the head of resuscitation at a Paris hospital. Meanwhile, France’s new two-week quarantine for international visitors will not apply to arrivals from Britain or the Schengen area.
  • Donald Trump has said America will have a vaccine ready by the end of the year. The German Health Minister has said a vaccine could take years.
  • Sweden’s ‘Maggie Day’ celebration, commemorating Baroness Thatcher, moved online when it became clear the crowds would exceed the state-mandated 50 people. It started at 1 p.m.
  • Iceland began to reopen schools today. South Korea will begin to reopen schools next week.
  • Norway’s Health Minister, Bent Høie, has said his country has coronavirus ‘under control’ because its R number is 0.7.
  • The world’s longest lockdown ended today in Italy, as more than four million people returned to work. Small businesses also reopened in Spain.
  • Students at more than 25 US universities are filing lawsuits against their colleges demanding partial refunds of tuition and campus fees because of the lockdown.
  • Germany is to consider banning hymns in church services to stop the spread of Covid-19.
  • Taiwan has still not been invited to attend meetings by the World Health Organisation

Our latest podcast
Research: Covid-19 vulnerabilities

How many people would have to fight off Covid-19 to achieve collective (or ‘herd’) immunity? So far, we have heard that it’s around 60 per cent. But this assumes a uniform population with everyone mingling equally and being equally at risk of catching the virus. A new study, led by academics at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, adjusts for the fact that they don’t and they aren’t. The virus, they argue, could quickly infect the more susceptible part of the population – which will then become immune and stop spreading the disease. As Matt Ridley puts it, ‘if the virus runs out of highly-susceptible segments of the population (elderly, hospital settings etc), it may struggle to keep going in the rest of the population’. Adjusting for this, says the study, and the threshold for Covid-19 herd immunity falls to between 10 per cent and 20 per cent.


  • Manufacturing output has fallen to record lows across Europe and Asia.
  • Greece has told the EU that its economy could contract by up to 8.9% this year.
  • Warren Buffett has sold all his shares in US airlines. The billionaire investor warned that passenger numbers may not recover.
  • 50 million tourism jobs could be lost globally, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
  • Students in the UK will pay their full tuition fees this autumn even if universities remain shut.

More from The Spectator

Coronavirus is revealing uncomfortable truths about JapanPhilip Patrick

The underground doctors’ movement questioning the use of ventilatorsDr Matt Strauss

Is the PM an example of why those with Covid-19 should be hospitalised earlier?Robert Peston

Spain’s fiendishly complex rules for easing the lockdownJim Lawley

The poetry of ‘Ambulances’Theo Hobson